An Astrophysicist and an Artist Walk Into a Bar… What Happens Next?

Artist Sarah Sandman designs social experiences — like live interactive Scrabble get-to-know-you games and a nationwide art exchange by bicycle — to help bring people together. Observational astrophysicist Jedidah Islerstudies supermassive, hyperactive black holes at the center of galaxies, called blazars.

Their work could hardly be more different, but they’re also roommates at the TED2015 conference. What do they talk about? How does one’s work overlap and shed light on the other’s? A week before the conference, Sarah and Jedidah put their heads together for a chat about their respective work, and fireworks flew. Here’s an excerpt from a far-reaching conversation.

What the artist asked the astrophysicist:

Sarah: I’m a visual person, so when I read that you study “particle jets emanating from supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies,” I want to see such an awesome phenomenon. What imaging technology and/or visual strategies do you use to teach others about such an abstract concept?

Jedidah: I use this word picture, which I’ve been developing over time. Imagine the black hole is a basketball spinning on your finger, with the black lines of the ball sitting vertically. Around the equator of the spinning basketball is a big donut. That donut is the “dinner plate” of the black hole. It’s how material falls into it. But blazars are very messy eaters, so not all of the material on the dinner plate gets into the black hole.

An artist’s conception of a blazar in action. Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Now, on your spinning basketball, where the lines come together at the top and bottom, imagine there’s a fire hose shooting out water. That’s like the jet of material that doesn’t make it into the black hole. It’s somehow slingshotted around it, and spewed out. We think that magnetic fields serve as the fire hose that shoots out the high-energy light and very fast-moving particles.

Sarah: If you had a chance to go to space, would you go? And if so, why? I love it here on Earth, so I’m not going anywhere, but I always want to hear from eager intergalactic travelers.

Jedidah: Let me just state clearly and for the record that if NASA (or Elon) called me today and said, “Jedidah, we want to send you to space. Would you go next week?” I’d say “YES!!! Absolutely!” I’d need a round-trip ticket, though. The recent applications for one-way tickets to Mars are not quite what I’m looking for.

I applied for the NASA astronaut corps a few years ago but didn’t have the required experience. I got my rejection letter back (which I still have on my wall), in which they told me that I needed to have my PhD first.

Jedidah Isler got the Lego treatment for a recent Scientific American piecethat argued for more diversity in STEM fields. Photo: Maia Weinstock.

Sarah: What drove you to study astronomy, and blazars in particular?

Jedidah: It really was as simple as loving the night sky and then realizing that I could do that for a living. I feel a deep connection to the night sky; I see more deeply into myself the more I peer out there.

I think blazars are worth understanding for the same reason that we continue to plumb the ocean depths. Humans are constantly pushing ourselves out into the great unknown. Space, for me, is the consummate unexplored territory, challenging our ability to even fathom what we see when we look out into the universe. If I can contribute to understanding one of the heavenly mysteries, I think I’m doing pretty well.

Frame from a conceptual animation of a blazar. Image credit: Wolfgang Steffen/UNAM.

Sarah: If a blazar were a dance move — aka “The Blazar” — how would someone do it?

Jedidah: There’d have to be some kind of spin move, since material is rotating in and falling onto the black hole. Then you’d have to “drop it like it’s hot” to simulate fall in (or near) the black hole. Then you’d have to pop up as fast as you can to simulate the jets. That, my friend, would be “The Blazar.”

Isler sharing her research on blazars at TED2015. Photo credit: Ryan Lash.

What the astrophysicist asked the artist:

Jedidah: I love how your work focuses on ways to connect people. I am particularly enamored with your Human Scrabble project, where you have strangers compete for the longest Scrabble word in a photo booth. One of the major critiques we hear about the digital age is that people are disconnecting from one another. Your work seems to really push back against that. Is it intentional, this trying to get to the heart of interconnectedness?

Sandman’s Human Scrabble project, in which participants were asked to spell words together. Photo credit: Sarah Sandman.

Sarah: It’s not an intentional pushback per se. Playing live Human Scrabble versus Words with Friends online provides two totally different types of connection, and I think both are extremely valuable in completely different ways. Running around a room looking for a stranger wearing the letter “X” so you can complete “EXQUISITE” with eight other strangers immediately breaks down barriers. You can’t be a fly on the wall, because the letter “X” is essential (and 10 points!). And by adopting the identity of “X,” you have significance beyond awkward small talk, such as “What you do for a living?” However, when I want to connect with my mom, who lives thousands of miles away in St Louis, playing Words With Friends online is an incredible way to have fun with her.

Still, I have to admit that I’m a bit of a Luddite at heart. I like technology, but more importantly, I love people and love to play. I melt watching other people running around together having fun. That’s a dopamine rush! I would choose four-square on a sidewalk over Candy Crush on my smartphone any day. Hands down.

Jedidiah: When I first heard of your work as an “experience designer,” the first thing that popped into my head was, “Wait, how did she find out about that?” In my work in STEM engagement, especially with students of color, students who are introduced to career paths outside of the mainstream are more likely to pursue them. So how did you come to do the work you do now? Had you ever met an experience designer before?

Sarah: Not exactly. I’m a bit on the fringe of industry definitions, because my work speaks directly to human-to-human experiences, whereas most “experience designers” are focusing on how users engage with technological interfaces like websites and apps. I still struggle with what to call myself. I’m currently most comfortable calling myself “a communication designer that uses objects and experiences to bring people together.”

For Sandman’s project Gift Cycle, gifts of art were biked between art communicates across the US. Photo credit: Sarah Sandman.

I fell into graphic design because my parents wouldn’t let me major in art at the University of Kansas. They said I wouldn’t make any money. As a feisty teen, I was infuriated, but I’m so relieved that they had me pursue a skill set that would let me pay my bills.

I tell this to my South Bronx students all the time: “Get employable creative skills, and let art be your burning passion on the side. Hopefully they’ll merge!” You might think this is a limiting thing to tell creative college students, but I think it’s realistic. The majority of the stuff you see on my website is what I do in my free time. I’ve always found a way to pay my bills, whether it’s by doing traditional graphic design or teaching.

In Sandman’s “Hostos Hands Up” project, the Black Studies Unit and the Media Design Programs of Hostos Community College designed large black hands with custom messages. Photo credit: Sarah Sandman.

But I recognize now it’s a privilege to even know about options. I realized that the majority of my South Bronx students had not heard of RISD,Parsons, Pratt, or the other top art schools until I introduced them to those institutions. And after helping several students transfer to these schools, the tuitions were still too high, even with scholarships. Our society is in dire need of more great public art colleges like Fashion Institute of Technologyand MassArt if we want to open the doors to more creative entrepreneurs.

Jedidah: Access to choice and information is indeed a privilege. It’s something that is almost invisible when one has it and insurmountable when one doesn’t. By the way, I love your Leave Behind project — where a typographic bike tire ridden through a puddle leaves behind a message. If you were to leave something behind, say, in a coffee shop, what would the person who found your item infer about you?

Sarah: The object would probably have a tiny fur embedded in it, revealing that I live in a tiny Brooklyn apartment with two cats. Or they’d find a receipt scribbled with explosively cryptic brainstorming. I write and draw on everything. I need to physically scribble and doodle whenever an idea pops up. No app has ever fulfilled that need!

Sandman shared her work on the Gift Cycle at TED2015. Photo credit: Ryan Lash.

The TED Fellows program hand-picks young innovators from around the world to raise international awareness of their work and maximize their impact.


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